Whenever I’m asked to name my favorite public history institutions, the East Tennessee Historical Society always comes in near the top of my list. Its headquarters is on the first floor of the East Tennessee History Center in downtown Knoxville, which it shares with the Knox County Archives and the McClung Historical Collection. The permanent exhibit at ETHS closed several years ago in preparation for the opening of a much larger new exhibition,Voices of the Land: The People of East Tennessee. I’ve waited for it eagerly, and it’s been well worth it.
To me, the most remarkable thing about Voices of the Land is the richness of its narrative content. It asks and answers the key questions that anybody has to confront in order to make sense of East Tennessee. Beginning with the Native Americans who made the region their home for centuries, the exhibit carries us through the period of European contact and trade, and then explains the forces that shaped migration and settlement in the 1700′s. If you’re a frontier and Revolutionary War fanatic like me, you’ll appeciate the ample space devoted to the Watauga Association, King’s Mountain, the abortive State of Franklin, and the territorial period. (I’ve never understood why Tennessee’s frontier era isn’t a popular subject. Kentucky, for example, has gotten a lot of mileage out of its frontier period; I suppose the Daniel Boone name recognition factor goes a long way.)
Following early statehood and Indian removal, the exhibit explains the factors that shaped a predominantly Unionist East Tennessee within a Confederate state. There’s a particularly large section on the Civil War, with a wealth of artifacts on the partisan fighting that broke out after secession, recruitment and mobilization, the homefront, and the campaigns in 1863 that ultimately ended Confederate power in the region. After the Civil War, Appalachia found itself subject to external forces, and the tension between these forces and the region’s internal realities is the focus of much of the exhibit’s final sections.
If you’ve spent any time reading history blogs or magazines lately, then you’re aware of the uproar over the new Gettysurg Museum of the American Civil War, part of which revolved around the role of artifacts in the exhibit galleries. Critics of the Gettysburg facility will be glad to know that Voices of the Land puts a premium on original objects. There are so many items to see here, in fact, that it will take serious history enthusiasts more than one trip to really appreciate them all. Some of them were on display in the old exhibit, but there is quite a bit of new material, and the inventory includes everything from Davy Crockett’s first rifle to memorabilia from the founding of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. There’s a good balance between the great characters and the anonymous; you’ll find John Sevier’s candlesticks as well as items carried by slaves.
Antiquarians of the late 1800′s and early 1900′s used to lament that East Tennessee’s history remained largely forgotten. In some ways, the same holds true today. We’ve listened to regional stereotypes for so long that we might be forgiven for forgetting who we really are. The ancients used myths to remind themselves of their identity; today we use historical truth. East Tennessee’s truth is a fanatstic story, and Voices of the Land tells it very well.
(For more information on the exhibit, check out the Knoxville News-Sentinel‘s coverage of the opening, available here.)